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Planet Ark World Environment News FEATURE - Lonesome George faces own Galapagos tortoise curse

Date: 06-Feb-01
Country: ECUADOR
Author: Simon Gardner

But it seems he has been unable to escape the legendary "Curse of the Tortoise" that has befallen so many in Charles Darwin's island paradise. And if elderly George cannot shake it off, the world will have lost one of a kind - literally.

The lumbering giant Galapagos tortoise is the last known of his sub-species so if he dies without an heir, geochelone elephantophus abingdoni - one of just 11 types of the rare tortoise pivotal to 19th century naturalist Darwin's theory of evolution - will be extinct.

Just why George - nearly 3 feet (a metre) long, some 200 pounds (90 kg) in weight and somewhere between 50 and 80 years old - has been unable to mate with the two female tortoise concubines closest to his sub-species remains a mystery.

But it is not for lack of trying.

"We don't really know what the problem is," said Solanda Rea of the Charles Darwin Scientific Research Station on Santa Cruz island, who has been breeding giant tortoises to boost dwindling numbers for nearly 20 years.

"He just runs out of steam when trying to copulate. In theory he should be able to mate with the two females we have put with him, but I think that after so many years living alone, he just needs a female of his own sub-species."

George was found on the Ecuadoran volcanic cluster's Pinta island 30 years ago, the last of his line to escape the scourges of pirates, whale hunters and later goats, which were introduced by farmers in the late 1950s and decimated the remaining tortoise population's habitat.

Now, having ruled out cloning and desperate to find an alternative to the costly process of artificial insemination, Rea and the station's other tortoise experts have posted a $10,000 reward in the hope of finding a suitable mate.

'ISLES OF THE TORTOISES'

Hundreds of thousands of the rare giant tortoises are believed to have once inhabited the remote archipelago 600 miles (1,000 km) off the Ecuadorean mainland, once dubbed the "Isles of the Tortoises."

But, slaughtered for their meat by 16th century pirates, the first visitors to the islands, and later by hunters who used them to make oil for lamps, just 10,000 remain today.

The Darwin Foundation aims to double that number over the next decade. Since the mid-1960s it has been harvesting tortoise eggs from across the island cluster and hatching them in basic incubators to ensure they are not killed prematurely by predatory hawks.

In a painstaking process, the baby tortoises' black shells are each numbered and they are kept in special enclosures for three years until they are strong enough to be released back into the wilds on their native island.

Some 2,500 tortoises have so far been reared and repatriated - 1,000 of them to the small island of Espanola alone, bred from just two males and 11 females.

Living on the sides and in the craters of the largely extinct volcano peaks that form the islands, the immense tortoises clamber around in the natural habitat in which, like so many of the island's other rare species, they evolved unhindered in isolation for thousands of years.

They are believed to owe their size to their hormones, the endemic island plants they feed on and the fact, that living almost exactly on the Equator, they do not need to hibernate.

With their huge serpentine necks and colossal, elephantine scaly legs and feet, they, like the other rare reptiles on the islands, look like prehistoric animals from a land that time forgot.

'CURSE OF THE TORTOISE'

Legend has it anyone who comes to the Galapagos hoping to turn a profit at the expense of the islands' unique ecosystem and other rare species like the blue-footed booby birds and marine iguanas, faces the "Curse of the Tortoise."

Islanders point to a long string of disasters that have befallen those who have not heeded the warnings, saying the near-disastrous oil spill in the archipelago in mid-January was just one more example.

"Strange things happen here. People have disappeared,

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Reuters
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